The Blackbirds housing development defies the cliché that nothing’s ever black and white—literally. The contrasting color palette across this single-acre community nods at Los Angeles’ proclivity for modern architecture while shiplap siding and pitched rooflines mimic surrounding bungalows. But beyond the eye-catching aesthetics is an even more compelling economic success story.
The infill development lies in the trendy Echo Park neighborhood—home to stars like Leonardo DiCaprio. Building market-rate houses in this swank ’hood in central L.A. might seem daunting, but developers Mike Brown and Casey Lynch of LocalConstruct took advantage of the city’s forward-thinking small-lot ordinance and accomplished just that; all 18 units sold quickly, with the top price tag barely breaking the million-dollar barrier.
“We face a severe housing crisis in L.A., and the small-lot ordinance was put in place by city planners to meet the need for new market-rate housing,” Lynch says. But, he adds, the popularity of small-lot projects has triggered some opposition among existing residents concerned about increased traffic and loss of privacy. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of backlash against this ordinance—and high-density development in general—but it’s important to address these issues.”
Enacted in 2006, the ordinance doesn’t change the zoning of a neighborhood, Lynch explains. It only applies to lots already zoned for multifamily, but allows developers to build fee-simple houses with the same density. This lowers costs by eliminating expenses for parking structures, maintenance (owners take care of their own properties), and liability, thanks to the absence of homeowners’ associations. In turn, developers can pass those savings on to homeowners.
“Blackbirds gave us a special opportunity to set a precedent by creating quality houses with the small-ordinance allowances,” says Lynch. Although the small-lot ordinance isn’t new, it’s almost always invoked to build condos or townhouses. Lynch and Brown bought a lot with low-density single-family and, instead of building multifamily per the zoning allowances, developed high-density single-family to better fit the neighborhood context.
The team tore down five existing bungalows—most uninhabited—in various states of decay to make way for the new development. Lynch and Brown worked with local architect Barbara Bestor to design high-quality houses with affordability in mind.
The 18 units offer the feel and amenities of single-family living, thanks to natural light from all four elevations, private outdoor space, and a site plan that fosters community interaction.
“I want residents to enjoy the connection with their neighbors when they pull into the driveway at the same time or run into each other at the mailbox/trash station,” Lynch explains. “These are things you can’t get with big parking garages and stacked apartments.”
Keeping floor plans compact but still open and flexible allowed the team to lower floor-area ratio and maximize outdoor living—each unit includes a yard, courtyard, or roof deck connected to interior spaces. The site sits on a steep grade, which created opportunities to terrace these areas for privacy.
Lynch and Brown modeled the project’s interior parking court after the Dutch woonerf concept of a living street. When no cars are parked there, such as during the workday or for special occasions, the court transforms into a shaded shared hangout.
The developers also managed to include architectural details, low-maintenance materials, and energy efficiency without breaking the budget. “With finishes and fixtures, it’s more about thought and taste rather than price,” Lynch says. “Same with floor plans. It’s about how efficiently you can use the space, not how many rooms you can fit in a house."